When the Lava Breaks
Anxious Apathetic: n. an uninterested, indifferent, unconcerned, unmoved, uninvolved, disinterested, unemotional, emotionless, dispassionate, lukewarm, unmotivated, halfhearted person who nonetheless experiences worry, unease, or nervousness, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.
One morning, as Marie Samuels was waking up from deep sleep, she discovered that while she’d been in bed her street had been changed into a river of lava.
She’d woken up before her alarm could go off. That never happens. She rolled out of bed and felt a sharp pain under her foot. A crucifix lay embedded in the shaggy carpet, long end pointing up. Marie had recently taken up religion, because she needed someone new to be angry with. Being angry with God is easy and alleviates the need to curse at one’s family or significant other. Her significant other, a hapless environmentalist named Bernice, would probably have something bitchy to say about this volcano, about how man shouldn’t mess with nature.
You never step in the same river twice — especially if it’s made of lava. Marie put on coffee and fed the dog, a shaggy pacifist named Mike. Mike had whined and pawed about all night, disturbing her rest. She was a naturally deep sleeper so, while the dog’s protests had dipped into her dreams, she had not fully risen out of slumber to register the volcanic eruption five miles to the west.
Marie opened the window and poked her head out. The lava was mesmerizing — a living, bleeding stream of the red, orange, yellow, and some brown. The brown surprised her. Marie didn’t know too much about lava, volcanoes, fire, rocks, soot, earth, or the Earth. She was just a paralegal.
“Rainier’s finally blown,” Marie said, kneeling and petting Mike. “It’s okay, boy.” Soothed by this, Mike went to the door and scratched it, indicating it was time to pee.
“No, Mike, you can’t go out. You don’t want to pee in lava.”
Cavalier to the point of denial, Marie poured the coffee and then went about preparing toast, thinking all the while how she would get Mike to pee. She hated cleaning up the rare times he still made a mess. She thought about the toilet — but how would he get into position? She turned to Twitter. The second her browser blinked onto the familiar page, Marie felt a surge of comfort. She loved conversing with the world without needing to be in the same room as these people or, more importantly, to later remember them or what they’d talked about.
“Mike has to pee but my house is surrounded by lava. What do I do?”
“@AnxiousApathetic Bathtub #YOLO,” instantly wrote her friend @Bobsyouruncle.
Too late. Mike peed on the doormat and bowed his head in shame. Marie sighed and grabbed the all-purpose cleaner from under the sink. Her phone rang. It occurred to Marie that the circumstances maybe called for thinking more than one step ahead. It also occurred to her that it was strange that she still had electricity.
“Yes?” she answered.
“Hey Bernice. Look this isn’t a good time. Rainier’s blown and my house is surrounded by —”
“Oh for God’s sake, Marie, it’s never a good time with you. I was just calling to tell you not to bother about meeting up tonight. I can’t believe you didn’t show up to my loco-vore organic Guatemalan potluck.”
Marie hung up without further discussion. Talking to Bernice now would lead down one of three paths: how human behavior caused global warming; how stupid it was for humans to buy property near imminent natural disasters; how Marie always insisted on staying at Bernice’s place and just couldn’t or wouldn’t “communicate in any meaningful way beyond what kind of TV we should watch and can we order a pizza.”
Marie poured a second cup of coffee and peered out the window again. Heat was already emanating from below. Her phone rang. Bernice again. Marie ignored it.
Bernice had put Marie through passive-aggressive hell over the last six months. Bernice was her first black girlfriend, and when they had gone to meet Marie’s parents at Thanksgiving the reception had been nervy and awkward. They weren’t racist, oh no, they were just still adjusting to the news their daughter was gay. But rather than reprimand her parents in some way for their rudeness, Marie receded into silence for the rest of the holiday. Bernice had never fully forgiven her for this betrayal.
Also, Marie really didn’t care for Bernice’s environmental struggle. It bored her, and she had grown bored of pretending it didn’t bore her. The organization Bernice worked for focused on local issues, small potatoes. She henpecked Marie about recycling and scolded Marie for tuning out the endless conversations about the local grocery stores’ refusal to stop using plastic bags. Marie felt that this missed the point, the big picture. Bernice called a third time. Marie ignored it again.
From the window, Marie saw the lava was moving uptown like sludge, pulling the wreckage of urbanism with it — distorted iron, chrome, glass, pedestrian disfigurations like undulating graffiti. The big picture. Marie’s apathy ran deeper than simply doubting the political will and efficacy of the people around her. She didn’t trust that anyone really knew what they were doing. The thought of agendas and platforms and missions just furthered her sense of anxiety. Marie thought of the history textbooks snotty kids would pretend to read a century from now. How they would mock such pathetic efforts at relevancy. There is no accuracy to the opinions of what is history. There is only the precision of what has happened, and what was felt by whom. Marie saw the lava and knew that the meaning of life must be the living of it, the moment one feels one is living. The most jarring thing about the lava was its stolid stoicism, its apparent lack of giving a shit — its total lack of interest in the infrastructure and detritus it washed over and seeped into and bathed.
Marie could not take her gaze away from this solid-seeming stream, the mud-like bubbling, viscous inconsolable wretch, which looked so much like an optical illusion, a glow-in-the-dark nightmare. She knew that all the houses on her block had been built on concrete foundations reinforced by steel. The developers had done this to reassure property-seekers that it would be safe to buy in an earthquake-volcanic zone. (“Because they know hydro-fracking causes earthquakes,” Bernice had said. What Marie didn’t know is that protecting against earthquakes and volcanoes are two different engineering feats; steel-reinforced concrete is the last thing you want in an earthquake-proofed building. But with Mt. Rainier exploding, she thanked God for them.) Despite the steel reinforcements, the foundations wouldn’t hold forever.
Her neighbors’ houses looked empty. She walked back to the computer and posted the same message to her Twitter, Facebook, and — why not — LinkedIn accounts:
“Am I the only one who missed the memo? #RainierBlows.”
A few minutes of online research quickly showed that she had not been the only one, not by a long stretch. The emergency rooms were overrun with burn victims, and the central business district was buried under twenty feet of ash. The wealthy condos downtown were safely north of the fire line, but emergency services had been sent there anyway. The lava was heading straight uptown. The president had given a speech.
“We’re dealing with one of the worst national disasters in our nation’s history,” he said helpfully — repeating verbatim the words of a recent former president, whom even an anxious apathetic like Marie could despise. Just then, the alarm clock on Marie’s iPod went off: set to play her favorites on shuffle, of course it was Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” blaring its sonorous barrage of urgency, its moaning helplessness in the face of an already-accepted demise.
Marie loved the song, though she didn’t know what a levee was, despite Bernice’s constant ravings about New Orleans and Katrina. As Marie saw it, the world was already doomed. She figured there was nothing to be done about it, since the system was built only to help the rich. What could people like Bernice and Marie do? Maybe hope God really does exist. Or try to enjoy living in the moment, which, even as she rejected the notion of big pictures or life meanings, Marie admitted she wasn’t good at doing.
Marie didn’t have a TV, but she found the local station’s online feed: nothing but static. CNN was reporting that firefighters were caught in a losing battle against the endless flames, and that the governor had declared a state of emergency.
Marie followed the #RainierBlows stream, noting she was but one of thousands who worried about how the recent eruption would affect their pets’ daily routines. A number of like-minded victims asked the Volcanic-Hot-Hotline whether it was still safe to go out for their morning jog.
“I hate runners,” Marie said to Mike, who lay at her feet whimpering. She didn’t hate them for their obvious superiority and evident condescension to those they whooshed past. What Marie hated about runners was their insistence on ignoring everything around them that they might enjoy if they simply slowed down and walked. Not that she really understood what it was she enjoyed about the walks she took with Mike — but she liked passing familiar faces, people whose dogs she knew, and noticing the weeds pushing through the cracks in the sidewalk.
All of this did remind her of nature’s call and she ran to the bathroom. When disaster strikes, an empty bladder is key. She peed and tried to come to some sort of internal consensus on how she felt about her house being surrounded by lava. The problem of natural disasters and national disasters and disastrous nations and disastrous human nature — Marie did not want to think about these things, not right now and not ever. She’d had enough trouble coming out to her parents, for God’s sake. The other problems of life were too overwhelming. The world was on fire with pain, poverty, rage, violence, hope, dreams, death. Marie had gone to college — she couldn’t pretend she didn’t know the world was a messed-up place and that she wasn’t doing anything about it. She had consoled herself that maybe it reflected something like modesty that she did not presume to be able to contribute to some kind of change. She hadn’t chosen to be white. Bernice was black but so what? Marie didn’t see race. Her town was engulfed in lava but so what? People were starving in one country, butchered in another, terrorized in a third. There was nothing physical to cling to in which she might seek meaning. She understood this without being able to articulate it. That the world was bigger than her. That this fact didn’t matter — that nothing mattered save her experience from one moment to the next. That the world was nothing but a concept, a construct. That it was nothing to her. She knew she was an Anxious Apathetic. Higher power versus indecent proclivity. Water versus fire.
She sat at the toilet and looked around her bathroom for the last time. The stains in the lining between the tiles. There are millions beyond millions of bathrooms in the world, billions in the world’s short history of human existence. Each has been used hundreds or thousands or millions of times. Almost always the same. Marie could not contend with the oppressive presence of eternity in this singular reflective moment. She wiped and flushed.
Mike was waiting obediently — if a bit nervously, Marie noted — in the living room. She could hear, far off, the thucking of helicopters.
“Well, Mike, I guess we’re going to have to go on a little trip.”
A quick Google search confirmed her suspicions: that dogs hate choppers of all kinds. She sighed and began collecting her things. The first item she retrieved was Mike’s dog treats.
Marie packed a small bag of dog stuff — food, toys, his blanket. Then she opened her Listicles application to jot down everything she herself would need. The helicopters were growing more and more audible. Mike growled low.
She put aside the regular To-Do-Today-Not-Tomorrow-YOLO list (“organize drawer for Bernice’s things, floss, read better magazines, check out buddism, exercise, organize DVD collection, call dentist, pay internet bill, call Dan+other college friends”) and opened a new one. She stared at the blinking cursor, unable to decide what she really needed to pack. Some clothes, yes. But everything else? Jewelry? Her e-reader? GPS? Passport? Abs-enhancing belt? Vibrator? Rice cooker?
“Slow down, slow down,” she could hear Bernice saying. “Slow down, so you might catch up.”
Fucking Bernice and her fake-ass pearls of wisdom.
Marie looked out the window again. She could see three helicopters — but they weren’t the color of military grey she had expected. One was Channel 4, one was Channel 7, and lagging behind them was Channel 5.
The media was all over Mount Rainier’s impetuous disgorgement, but where was the rescue brigade? Marie spotted the Channel 4 folks focusing their cameras on one spot further down her street. She craned her neck to see: the Wilsons’ place, just five houses down, had begun to sink into the ground. The foundations must have given way. A burst of flames erupted out of one of the second-floor windows.
Marie knew she and Mike were running out of time. Marie wondered if now would be a good time to pray — she’d been slacking on her praying for the last few days. As if on cue, her iPod changed from Bowie’s “Space Oddity” to Hendrix.
“Fuck!” cried Marie. “Mike, we need to move.”
“I have only one burning desire —” crooned Jimi. Marie shut off the device before he could finish.
She turned back to Twitter to find out where the hell the infantry was.
“Helicopters + other help from National Guard arriving soon to aid and rescue ppl trapped in uptown + surrounding areas #RainierBlows,” said the Volcanic-Hot-Hotline.
Suddenly, the entire house lurched. Marie ran to her window again to see that the house two doors down was now crumbling.
“Mike, come here!”
She grabbed the doggie bag and Mike’s leash. Screw the rice cooker.
“Come here, boy! Come here!”
The dog hid under the table. Marie cursed again and fumbled for treats. The house lurched again with a groan that ran up the foundations and all the way down Marie’s spine.
“Mike, for God’s sake, please!” She knelt down, felt for the scruffy dog’s collar, and yanked — he followed with a squeal, she hooked the leash onto him and proceeded to drag him whining and whimpering to the drop-down stairs that led to the attic.
A terrifying crash shook the house, and this time Mike obediently rushed up the steps. Once in the attic, Marie noted how cool and moldy the little space felt. She opened the window and hopped onto the steep roof, thinking stupidly all the while of how much warmer it was outside and how she shouldn’t let her house grow dangerous mold. What she should have been thinking about was how it was unfortunate she rented the only house on the street without a flat roof. That certainly had been part of the charm of the place, initially, when she realized she could only afford to live uptown.
“Come, Mike!” she half-screamed in as sweet a tone as she could muster. Mike obligingly slumped to the attic floor. The roof was steep and the attic felt cool.
“Mike, I will leave you right here!” she lied. Mike didn’t know what she was saying and wouldn’t have believed her anyway. He was a dog who disliked confrontation and had chosen his mistress based on her peaceful disposition, that day long ago at the shelter.
Then the foundations gave way. If a song were playing on Marie’s portable music player, which it wasn’t, it would not be R.E.M.’s “End of the World As We Know It,” nor “Losing My Religion,” but rather their less-known “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1.”
The steep roof began tilting as the front of the house became liquid rock — tilting, miraculously, toward the horizontal plane. The building was caving in on itself and Mike needed to step up and make a decision. He leapt out the window into Marie’s grateful arms. The house was about sixty degrees off its axis, the roof twenty degrees from being flat. Mike barked — hey, the Wilsons had gotten out! They were standing with the Bartons on the next-door neighbors’ roof.
“Are you okay?” everybody shouted in unison.
When would the National Guard arrive? She cursed herself for not bringing her laptop up to the roof, though she wasn’t sure her Wi-Fi would be working anymore.
Amazingly, like a broken slab of ice, the house began to float. Marie was floating on fire — the house was both sinking and moving steadily away from the Bartons’. Given the uptown motion of the lava, it seemed wisest to ride the house as far as it would go, then leap to another building. Perhaps Marie and Mike could outrace the worst of the lava in an alley-rat-race jumpathon from uptown to the suburbs.
Mike was the first to jump — nothing apathetic about him. He leapt to the Kendricks’ and landed with plenty of room to spare. Marie hesitated, then judged the distance to be acceptable. She took a few steps back and ran, jumping easily clear of the lava alley below. She felt a sharp pain in her ankle and wondered if it was broken. She tried to stand up, leaning on Mike to do so, but fell with a scream at the intense flare of pain.
This was it — the end of the line. There would be no heroic leapfrogging from house to house on her way to safety. She struggled to sit up and accepted Mike’s consoling licks of her face.
If the rescue helicopters did not arrive soon, she would die. The Wilsons and Bartons two buildings down seemed safe — the Barton house was holding firm. It must have been built on a better foundation or something. Meanwhile, the surrounding rooftops were empty. The Kendricks were either not home or seeking refuge inside, out of earshot. Marie screamed for them anyway — no luck. She was alone.
Except for Mike. Mike could still be saved. The Kendrick house was sinking, but at a slow pace. He still had time to leap to the Aljowailys’ next door. Their place was only four or five feet away.
“Mike! Go! Save yourself!” She pointed at the Aljowaily house, and Mike ignored her as always. For the first time today, Marie sobbed.
“Mike, you stupid dog, I love you but you have to go!”
She petted the shaggy creature, took the rest of the dog treats, and prepared to fling them as hard as she could toward the Aljowailys’ roof.
Slow down, she thought to herself. Slow down, so that you might catch up.
She realized she was too far away, lying in the middle of the Kendricks’ roof, for the throw to reach the Aljowaily house. She painfully crawled to the edge of the Kendrick house. Mike panted next to her. It was getting unbearably hot. Sweat poured down Marie’s face, the weight of her perspiration dragging her brow into a sympathetic, deep frown.
Just then, flames shot out of the chimney. The Kendricks’ first floor must have been burning. It was now or never. Marie reached as far back as possible and threw the treats as hard as she could.
If she were a baseball pitcher Marie would be a knuckleballer. The dog treats fell far short of the Aljowaily roof, striking instead a second floor window with a barely audible clack and falling to the lavabed below.
“No!” screamed Marie. Mike looked down at the lava, then back at Marie, as if asking, really, did she really want him to jump down into that scary hot fire thing, really? No, that couldn’t be right, she wouldn’t, oh no, oh no, she liked Mike, she fed him after all. Dark, angry smoke was all around them. There was no way she was going to succeed in explaining to her gentle hairy dog that he needed to abandon his mistress and save himself. For one thing she couldn’t even speak anymore, she was coughing so hard from the smoke.
She thought again of Bernice. Marie wished she could apologize for the Thanksgiving incident and all the confused, resentful silence that had followed. Bernice had not been a bad girlfriend — nor was she a bad person. Especially when in the passionate thrall of her work, Bernice had that special glow, that sheen of a person who is full of life. The concentrated brow, the steady gaze, the fingers fluttering, full of purpose, across laptop keys. Marie on the other hand was quiet, aloof, condescending, and had remained politically apathetic in spite of, and perhaps even to spite, Bernice. Marie was a quitter without a cause. Now lying on the roof of a burning building, it occurred to her she was mortal — and that she would never get to tell Bernice how sorry she was.
The smoke from the Kendrick fire quickly overcame Marie and she fell unconscious into dark, fiery red — then there was nothing.
Mike hadn’t abandoned Marie. When she woke up, she was in a hospital bed. It was clean and cool in the room, and the air was breathable. This must be a hospital out of lava-shot. Bernice sat by the hospital bed and held Marie’s hand. She’d been crying. If an iDevice were playing music now, it would be playing The White Stripes’ “We’re Going to Be Friends.”
But it wasn’t. Marie looked around — no sign of Mike.
“It’s okay,” Bernice said. “Mike’s with the Kendricks.”
Bernice explained everything: how Mike had dragged Marie by the pant leg away from the smoke to the opposite side of the building, and then had heroically barked and barked enough to wake up the Kendricks, who’d been sleeping in that day. The Kendricks then rescued Marie, Mike, and themselves — though they forgot about the goldfish Bubbles until Lucía, age 5, reminded them three hours later.
Marie thought of her gentle pup. He’d saved her. Thoughtlessly. Instinctively. She had realized — before giving up, before acquiescing to the quiet command of the heat, before accepting the final compromise all must make — she had seized the chance to try to save poor Mike. She’d thrown the treats to the Aljowaily place. Mike. It was he, not Bernice, who had been the subject of the real epiphany, up on that flaming rooftop.
“I want Mike,” whined Marie. “He’s my best friend.”
“It’s okay,” Bernice said again.
Marie said nothing. This was all wrong — it was Mike, not Bernice, she wanted now. She knew she was supposed to prefer to have a human being sitting by her, offering comfort, and she felt a pang of anxiety flare up at the thought — because yes, she did seem to prefer this animal to most humans, she did seem to try to avoid people, mostly. But this was not something she should be thinking about right now. Her goddamn house had been surrounded by lava, for Christ’s sake. She looked at Bernice. Beautiful Bernice. Foresaw the weeks that would follow — Bernice’s nurturing hand, unspoken forgiveness of the fights that had come before. Marie decided to save them both the trouble.
“Bernice, I love you but I don’t think we can be together,” she said. “I know I’m lying here and you’re sitting here, but it’s — I don’t know. I don’t want to lie to you. I’m really sorry. Please don’t be mad at me.”
Bernice, who’d been planning to offer Marie a place to stay now that Rainier had wiped out her house, didn’t say anything for a minute. Part of her hesitation came from surprise, because most people, even today, don’t wake up in a hospital bed after a volcanic eruption and suddenly break off relationships. She finally shrugged, still wordless, and left. Walking out of the room, she didn’t shed a single tear, holding her head high and muttering something about immaturity and ingratitude.
Marie turned on her phone, saw her parents had called five times, and opened her Twitter app:
“Broke up with Bernice today. At least one good thing happened #RainierBlows.” Then she added, “When the lava breaks, you got to move #ZeppelinRemix #RainierBlows.”
She tried to generate the mental strength to call her parents, then remembered something and reopened Twitter: “Oh, also, I’m glad to be alive, obvs #Priorities.”
She clicked enter and her thought went out to the masses and she thought about it after the fact. It was out there, and she didn’t like to delete tweets — but it troubled her. Being glad to be alive. Well, that was a lie. She wasn’t glad to be alive.
It’s not that she wasn’t glad to not be not alive, either. She didn’t know what she felt. Gratitude? That seemed right. Relief that Mike was safe, and that she herself was not in any pain, save a dull throb in the ankle. Pain would be bad. But she did not feel the opposite of pain — only its absence. Fair enough. What was she supposed to do now? Start over — open a blank Listicle, ask Twitter friends for a couch to crash on, go to work in the morning? Marie suspected she was supposed to have some kind of answer now. She was too used to trying to avoid feeling to know how she felt.
Staring at the last tweet, at the blinking cursor awaiting her next one, she decided she needed to add a final thought — to override the last one. Well, the lava had done one thing — the unforgettable day had helped her cut ties with Bernice.
This last thought filled her with relief and joy — such that she had not felt from successfully jumping over an alleyway of lava, or waking up in a hospitable with the renewed ability to breathe. Okay. That’s something. That’ll do for now.
Then, as if taking all credit away from poor, loyal Mike, loyal Mike and his animal instincts — as if her good fortune were some great proof of something, which it wasn’t, she added something so many people do in those adrenaline-inspired times of irrational instinctive joy: “Praise God, now I believe #WhenItRainiersItPours.”
With that settled, she called her parents, told them she loved them, and asked if she could stay with them for a little while.
about the author